This is the second and final part of my interview with Thomas Fischbacher. We’re talking about sustainable agriculture, and he was just about to discuss the role of paying attention to flows.
JB: So, tell us about flows.
TF: For natural systems, some of the most important flows are those of energy, water, mineral nutrients, and biomass. Now, while they are physically real, and keep natural systems going, we should remind ourselves that nature by and large does not make high level decisions to orchestrate them. So, flows arise due to processes in nature, but nature ‘works’ without being consciously aware of them. (Still, there are mechanisms such as evolutionary pressure that ensure that the flow networks of natural ecosystems work—those assemblies that were non-viable in the long term did not make it.)
Hence, flows are above everything else a useful conceptual framework—a mental tool devised by us for us—that helps us to make sense of an otherwise extremely complex and confusing natural world. The nice thing about flows is that they reduce complexity by abstracting away details when we do not want to focus on them—such as which particular species are involved in the calcium ion economy, say. Still, they retain a lot of important information, quite unlike some models used by economists that actually guide—or misguide—our present decision-making. They tell us a lot about key processes and longer term behaviour—in particular, if something needs to be corrected.
Sustainability is a complex subject that links to many different aspects of human experience—and of course the non-human world around us. When confronted with such a subject, my approach is to start by asking: ‘what I am most certain about’, and use these key insights as ‘anchors’ that set the scene. Everything else must respect these insights. Occasionally, some surprising new insight forces me to reevaluate some fundamental assumptions, and repaint part of the picture. But that’s life—that’s how we learn.
Very often, I find that those aspects which are both useful to obtain deeper insights and at the same time accessible to us are related to flows.
JB: Can you give an example?
TF: Okay, here’s another puzzle. What is the largest flow of solids induced by civilization?
JB: Umm… maybe the burning of fossil fuels, passing carbon into the atmosphere?
TF: I am by now fairly sure that the answer is: the unintentional export of topsoil from the land into the sea by wind and water erosion, due to agriculture. According to Brady & Weil, around the year 2000, the U.S. annually ‘exported’ about 4×1012 kilograms of topsoil to the sea. That’s roughly three cubic kilometers, taking a reasonable estimate for the density of humus.
JB: Okay. In 2007, the U.S. burnt 1.6 × 1012 kilograms of carbon. So, that’s comparable.
TF: Yes. When I cross check my number combining data from the NRCS on average erosion rates and from the CIA World Factbook on cultivated land area, I get a result that is within the same ballpark, so it seems to make sense. In comparison, total U.S. exports of economic goods in 2005 were 4.89×1011 kilograms: about an order of magnitude less, according to statistics from the Federal Highway Administration.
If we look at present soil degradation rates alone, it is patently clear that we see major changes ahead. In the long term, we just cannot hope to keep on feeding the population using methods that keep on rapidly destroying fertility. So, we pretty much know that something will happen there. (Sounds obvious, but alas, thinking of a number of discussions I had with some economists, I must say that, sadly, it is far from being so.)
What actually will happen mostly depends on how wisely we act. The possibilities range from nuclear war to a mostly smooth swift transition to fertility-building food production systems that also take large amounts of CO2 out of the atmosphere and convert it to soil humus. I am, of course, much in favour of scenarios close to the latter one, but that won’t happen unless we put in some effort—first and foremost, to educate people about how it can be done.
Flow analysis can be an extremely powerful tool for diagnosis, but its utility goes far beyond this. When we design systems, paying attention to how we design the flow networks of energy, water, materials, nutrients, etc., often makes a world of a difference.
Nature is a powerful teacher here: in a forest, there is no ‘waste’, as one system’s output is another system’s input. What else is ‘waste’ but an accumulation of unused output? So, ‘waste’ is an indication of an output mismatch problem. Likewise, if a system’s input is not in the right form, we have to pre-process it, hence do work, hence use energy. Therefore, if a process or system continually requires excessive amounts of energy (as many of our present designs do), this may well be an indication of a design problem—and could be related to an input mismatch.
Also, the flow networks of natural systems usually show both extremely high recycling rates and a lot of multi-functionality, which provides resilience. Every species provides its own portfolio of services to the assembly, which may include pest population control, creating habitat for other species, food, accumulating important nutrients, ‘waste’ transformation, and so on. No element has a single objective, in contrast to how we humans by and large like to engineer our systems. Each important function is covered by more than one element. Quite unlike many of our past approaches, design along such principles can have long-term viability. Nature works. So, we clearly can learn from studying nature’s networks and adopting some principles for our own designs.
Designing for sustainability with, around, and inspired by natural systems is an interesting intellectual challenge, much like solving a jigsaw puzzle. We cannot simultaneously comprehend the totality of all interactions and relations between adjacent pieces as we build it, but we keep on discovering clues by closely studying different aspects: form, colour, pattern. If we are on the right track, and one clue tells us how something should fit, we will discover that other aspects will fit as well. If we made a mistake, we need to apply force to maintain it and hammer other pieces into place—and unless we correct that mistake, we will need ever more brutal interventions to artificially stabilize the problems which are mere consequences of the original mistake. Think using nuclear weapons to seal off spilling oil wells drilled in deep waters needed because we used up all the easily accessible high-quality fuels. One mistake begets another.
There is a reason why jigsaw puzzles ‘work’: they were created that way. There is also a reason why the dance of natural systems ‘works’: coevolution. What happens when we run out of steam to stabilize poor designs (i.e. in an energy crisis)? We, as a society, will be forced to confront our past arrogance and pay close attention to resolving the design mistakes we so far always tried to talk away. That’s something I’d call ‘true progress’.
Actually, it’s quite evident now: many of our ‘problems’ are rather just symptoms of more fundamental problems. But as we do not track these down to the actual root, we keep on expending ever more energy by stacking palliatives on top of one another. Growing corn as a biofuel in a process that both requires a lot of external energy input and keeps on degrading soil fertility is a nice example. Now, if we look closer, we find numerous further, superficially unrelated, problems that should make us ask the question: "Did we assemble this part of the puzzle correctly? Is this approach really such a good idea? What else could we do instead? What other solutions would suggest themselves if we paid attention to the hints given by nature?" But we don’t do that. It’s almost as if we were proud to be thick.
JB: How would designing with flows in mind work?
TF: First, we have to be clear about the boundaries of our domain of influence. Resources will at some point enter our domain of influence and at some point leave it again. This certainly holds for a piece of land on which we would like to implement sustainable food production where one of the most important flows is that of water. But it also holds for a household or village economy, where an important flow through the system is that of purchase power—i.e. money (but in the wider sense). As resources percolate through a system, their utility generally degrades—entropy at work. Water high up in the landscape has more potential uses than water further down. So, we can derive a guiding principle for design: capture resources as early as possible, release them as late as possible, and see that you guide them in such a way that their natural drive to go downhill makes them perform many useful duties in between. Considering water flowing over a piece of land, this would suggest setting up rainwater catchment systems high up in the landscape. This water then can serve many useful purposes: there certainly are agricultural/silvicultural and domestic uses, maybe even aquaculture, potentially small-scale hydropower (say, in the 10-100 watts range), and possibly fire control.
JB: When I was a kid, I used to break lots of things. I guess lots of kids do. But then I started paying attention to why I broke things, and I discovered there were two main reasons. First, I might be distracted: paying attention to one thing while doing another. Second, I might be trying to overcome a problem by force instead of by slowing down and thinking about it. If I was trying to untangle a complicated knot, I might get frustrated and just pull on it… and rip the string.
I think that as a culture we make both these mistakes quite often. It sounds like part of what you’re saying is: "Pay more attention to what’s going on, and when you encounter problems, slow down and think about their origin a bit—don’t just try to bully your way through them."
But the tool of measuring flows is a nice way to organize this thought process. When you first told me about ‘input mismatch problems’ and ‘output mismatch problems’, it came as a real revelation! And I’ve been thinking about them a lot, and I want to keep doing that.
One thing I noticed is that problems tend to come in pairs. When the output of one system doesn’t fit nicely into the input of the next, we see two problems. First, ‘waste’ on the output side. Second, ‘deficiency’ on the input side. Sometimes it’s obvious that these are two aspects of the same problem. But sometimes we fail to see it.
For example, a while ago some ground squirrels chewed a hole in an irrigation pipe in our yard. Of course that’s our punishment for using too much water in a naturally dry environment, but look at the two problems it created. One: big gushers of water shooting out of the hole whenever that irrigation pipe was used, which caused all sort of further problems. Two: not enough water to the plants that system was supposed to be irrigating. Waste on one side, deficiency on the other.
That’s obvious, easy to see, and easy to fix: first plug the hole, then think carefully about why we’re using so much water in the first place. We’d already replaced our lawn with plants that use less water, but maybe we can do better.
But here’s a bigger problem that’s harder to fix. Huge amounts of fertilizer are being used on the cornfields of the midwestern United States. With the agricultural techniques they’re using, there’s a constant deficiency of nitrogen and phosphorus, so it’s supplied artificially. The figures I’ve seen show that about 30% of the energy used in US agriculture goes into making fertilizers. So, it’s been said that we’re ‘eating oil’—though technically, a lot of nitrogen fertilizer is made using natural gas. Anyway: a huge deficiency problem.
On the other hand, where is all this fertilizer going? In the midwestern United States, a lot of it winds up washing down the Mississipi River. And as a result, there are enormous ‘dead zones’ in the Gulf of Mexico. The fertilizer feeds algae, the algae dies and decays, and the decay process takes oxygen out of the water, killing off any life that needs oxygen. These dead zones range from 15 and 18 thousand square kilometers, and they’re in a place that’s one of the prime fishing spots for the US. So: a huge waste problem.
But they’re the same problem!
It reminds me of the old joke about a guy who was trying to button his shirt. "There are two things wrong with this shirt! First, it has an extra button on top. Second, it has an extra buttonhole on bottom!"
TF: Bill Mollison said it in a quite humorous-yet-sarcastic way in this episode of the Global Gardener movie:
• Bill Mollison, Urban permaculture strategies – part 1, YouTube.
While the potential to grow a large amount of calories in cities may be limited, growing fruit and vegetables nevertheless does make sense for multiple reasons. One of them is that many things that previously went into the garbage bin now have a much more appropriate place to go—such as the compost heap. Many urbanites who take up gardening are quite amazed when they realize how much of their household waste actually always ‘wanted’ to end up in a garden.
JB: Indeed. After I bought a compost bin, the amount of trash I threw out dropped dramatically. And instead of feeling vaguely guilty as I threw orange peels into the trash where they’d be mummified in a plastic bag in a landfill, I could feel vaguely virtuous as I watched them gradually turn into soil. It doesn’t take as long as you might think. And it comes as a bit of a revelation at first: "Oh, so that’s how we get soil."
TF: Perhaps the biggest problem I see with a mostly non-gardening society is that people without even the slightest own experience in growing food are expected to make up their mind about very important food-related questions and contribute to the democratic decision making process. Again, I must emphasize that whoever does not consciously invest some effort into getting at least some minimal first hand experience to improve their judgment capabilities will be easy prey for rat-catchers. And by and large, society is not aware of how badly they are lied to when it comes to food.
But back to flows. Every few years or so, I stumble upon a jaw-dropping idea, or a principle, that makes me realize that it is so general and powerful that, really, the limits of what it can be used for are the limits of my imagination and creativity. I recently had such a revelation with the PSLQ integer relation algorithm. Using flows as a mental tool for analysis and design was another such case. All of a sudden, a lot made sense, and could be analyzed with ease.
There always is, of course, the ‘man with a hammer problem’—if you are very fond of a new and shiny hammer, everything will look like a nail. I’ve also heard that expressed as ‘an idea is a very dangerous thing if it is the only one you have’.
So, while keeping this in mind, now that we got an idea about flows in nature, let us ask: "how can we abuse these concepts?" Mathematicians prefer the term ‘abstraction’, but it’s fun either way. So, let’s talk about the flow of money in economies. What is money? Essentially, it is just a book-keeping device invented to keep track of favours owed by society to individuals and vice versa. What function does it have? It works as ‘grease’, facilitating trade.
So, suppose you are a mayor of a small village. One of your important objectives is of course prosperity for your villagers. Your village trades with and hence is linked to an external economy, and just as goods and services are exchanged, so is money. So, at some point, purchase power (in the form of money) enters your domain of influence, and at some point, it will leave it again. What you want it to do is to facilitate many different economic activities—so you want to ensure it circulates within the village as long as possible. You should pay some attention to situations where money accumulates—for everything that accumulates without being put to good use is a form of ‘waste’, hence pollution. So, this naturally leads us to two ideas: (a) What incentives can you find to keep money on circulating within the village? (There are many answers, limited only by creativity.) And (b) what can you do to constrain the outflow? If the outlet is made smaller, system outflow will match inflow at a higher internal pressure, hence a higher level of resource availability within the system.
This leads us to an idea no school will ever tell you about—for pretty much the same reason why no state-run school will ever teach how to plan and successfully conduct a revolution. The road to prosperity is to systematically reduce your ‘Need To Earn’—i.e. the best way to spend money is to set up systems that allow you to keep more money in your pocket. An frequent misconception that keeps on arising when I mention this is that some think this idea would be about austerity. Quite to the contrary. You can make as much money as you want—but one thing you should keep in mind is that if you have that trump card up your sleeve that you could at any time just disconnect from most of the economy and get by with almost no money at all for extended periods of time, you are in a far better position to take risks and grasp exceptional opportunities as they arise as someone would be who committed himself to having to earn a couple of thousand pounds a month.
The problem is not with earning a lot of money. The problem is with being forced to continually make a lot of money. We readily manage to identify this as a key problem of drug addicts, but fail to see the same mechanism at work in mainstream society. A key assumption in economic theory is that exchange is voluntary. But how well is that assumption satisfied in practice if such forces are in place?
Now, what would happen if people started to get serious about investing the money they earn to systematically reduce their need to earn money in the future? Some decisions such as getting a photovoltaic array may have ‘payback times’ in the range of one or two decades, but I consider this ‘payback time’ concept as a self-propagating flawed idea. If something gives me an advantage in terms of depending on less external input now, this reduction of vulnerability also has to be taken into account—’payback times’ do not do that. So—if most people did such things, i.e. made strategic decisions to set up systems so that their essential needs can be satisfied with minimal effort—especially money, this would put a lot of political power back into their hands. A number of self-proclaimed ‘leaders’ certainly don’t like the idea of people being in a position to just ignore their orders. Also note that this would have a funny effect on the GDP—ever heard of ‘imputations’?
JB: No, what are those?
TF: It’s a funny thing, perhaps best explained by an example. If you fully own your own house, then you don’t pay rent. But for the purpose of determining the GDP, you are regarded as paying as much rent to yourself (!) as you would get if you rented out the house. See:
• Imputed rent, Wikipedia.
Evidently, if people make a dedicated effort at the household level to become less dependent on the economy by being able to provide most of their essential needs themselves (housing, food, water, energy, etc.) to a much larger extent, this amounts to investing money in order to need less money in the future. If many people did this systematically, it would superficially have a devastating effect on the GDP—but it would bring about a much more resilient (because less dependent) society.
The problem is that the GDP really is not an appropriate measure for progress. But obviously, those who publish these figures know that as well, hence the need to fudge the result with imputations. So, a simple conclusion is: whenever there is an opportunity to invest money in a way that makes you less dependent on the economy in the future, that might be well worth a closer look. Especially if you get the idea that, if many people did this, the state would likely have to come up with other imputations to make the impact on the GDP disappear!
JB: That’s a nice thought. I tend to worry about how the GDP and other economic indicators warp our view of what’s right to do. But you’re saying that if people can get up the nerve to do what’s right, regardless, the economic indicators may just take care of themselves.
TF: We have to remember that sustainability is about systems that are viable in the long run. Environmental sustainability is just one important aspect. But you won’t go on for long doing what you do unless it also has economic long-term viability. Hence, we are dealing with multi-dimensional design constraints. And just as flow network analysis is useful to get an idea about the environmental context, the same holds for the economic context. It’s just that the resources are slightly different ones—money, labour, raw materials, etc. These thoughts can be carried much further, but I find it quite worthwhile to instead look at an example where someone did indeed design a successful system along such principles. In the UK, the first example that would come to my mind is Hill Holt Wood, because the founding director, Nigel Lowthrop, did do so many things right. I have high admiration for his work.
JB: When it comes to design of sustainable systems, you also seem to be a big fan of Bill Mollison and some of the ‘permaculture’ movement that he started. Could you say a bit about that? Why is it important?
TF: The primary reason why permaculture matters is that it has demonstrated some stunning successes with important issues such as land rehabilitation.
‘Permaculture’ means a lot of different things to a lot of different people. Curiously, where I grew up, the term is somewhat known, but mostly associated with an Austrian farmer, not Bill Mollison. And I’ve seen some physicists who first had come into contact with it through David Holmgren‘s book revise their opinions when they later read Mollison. Occasionally, some early adopters did not really understand the scientific aspects of it and tried to link it with some strange personal beliefs of the sort Martin Gardner discussed in Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science. And so on. So, before we discuss permaculture, I have to point out that one might sometimes have to take a close look to evaluate it. A number of things claiming to be ‘permaculture’ actually are not.
When I started—some time ago—to make a systematic effort to get a useful overview over the structure of our massive sustainability-related problems, a key question to me always was: "what should I do?"—and a key conviction was: "someone must have had some good ideas about all this already." This led me to actually not read some well-known "environmentalist" books many people had read which are devoid of any discussion of our options and potential solutions, but to do a lot of detective work instead.
In doing so, I travelled, talked to a number of people, read a lot of books and manuscripts, did a number of my own experiments, cross-checked things against order-of-magnitude guesstimates, against the research literature, and so on. At one point—I think it was when I took a closer look into the work of the laureates of the ‘Right Livelihood award’ (sometimes called the ‘Alternative Nobel Prize’)—I came across Bill Mollison’s work. And it struck a chord.
Back in the 90s, when mad cow disease was a big topic in Europe, I spent quite some time pondering questions such as: "what’s wrong with the way farming works these days?" I immediately recognized a number of insights I independently had arrived at back then when studying Bill Mollison’s work, and yet, he went so much further—talked about a whole universe of issues I still was mostly unaware of at that time. So, an inner voice said to me: "if you take a close look at what that guy already did, that might save you a lot of time". Now, Mollison did get some things wrong, but I still think taking a close look at what he has to say is a very effective way to get a big picture overview over what we can achieve, and what needs urgent attention. I think it greatly helps (at least to me) that he comes from a scientific background. Before he decided to quit academia in 1978 and work full time on developing permaculture, he was a lecturer at the University of Hobart, Tasmania.
JB: But what actually is ‘permaculture’?
TF: That depends a lot on who you ask, but I like to think about permaculture as if it were an animal. The ‘skeleton’ is a framework with cleverly designed ‘static properties’ that holds the ‘flesh’ together in a way so that it can achieve things. The actual ‘flesh’ is provided by solutions to specific problems with long term viability being a key requirement. But it is more than just a mere semi-amorphous collage of solutions, due to its skeleton. The backbone of this animal is a very simple (deliberately so) yet functional (this is important) core ethics which one could regard as being the least common denominator of values considered as essential across pretty much all cultures. This gives it stability. Other bones that make this animal walk and talk are related to key principles. And these principles are mostly just applied common sense.
For example, it is pretty clear that as non-renewable resources keep on becoming more and more scarce, we will have to seriously ponder the question: what can we grow that can replace them? If our design constraints change, so does our engineering—should (for one reason or another) some particular resource such as steel become much more expensive than it is today, we would of course look into the question whether, say, bamboo may be a viable alternative for some applications. And that is not as exotic an idea as it may sound these days.
So, unquestionably, the true solutions to our problems will be a lot about growing things. But growing things in the way that our current-day agriculture mostly does it seems highly suspicious, as this keeps on destroying soil. So, evidently, we will have to think less along the lines of farming and more along the lines of gardening. Also, we must not fool ourselves about a key issue: most people on this planet are poor, hence for an approach to have wide impact, it must be accessible to the poor. Techniques that revolve around gardening often are.
Next, isn’t waiting for the big (hence, capital intensive) ‘technological miracle fix’ conspicuously similar to the concept of a ‘pie in the sky’? If we had any sense, shouldn’t we consider solving today’s problems with today’s solutions?
If one can distinguish between permaculture as it stands and attempts by some people who are interested in it to re-mold it so that it becomes ‘the permaculture part of permaculture plus Anthroposophy/Alchemy/Biodynamics/Dianetics/Emergy/Manifestation/New Age beliefs/whatever’, there is a lot of common sense in permaculture—the sort of ‘a practical gardener’s common sense’. In this framework, there is a place for both modern scientific methods and ancient tribal wisdom. I hence consider it a healthy antidote to both fanatical worship of ‘the almighty goddess of technological progress’—or any sort of fanatical worship for that matter—as well as to funny superstitious beliefs.
There are some things in the permaculture world, however, where I would love to see some change. For example, it would be great if people who know how to get things done paid more attention to closely keeping records of what they do to solve particular problems and to making these widely accessible. Solutions of the ‘it worked great for a friend of a friend’ sort do us a big disservice. Also, there are a number of ideas that easily get represented in overly simplistic form—such as ‘edge is good’—where one better should retain some healthy skepticism.
JB: Well, I’m going to keep on pressing you: what is permaculture… according to you? Can you list some of the key principles?
TF: That question is much easier to answer. The way I see it, permaculture is a design-oriented approach towards systematically reducing the total effort that has to be expended (in particular, in the long run) in order to keep society going and allow people to live satisfying lives. Here, ‘effort’ includes both work that is done by non-renewable resources (in particular fossil fuels), as well as human labour. So, permaculture is not about returning to pre-industrial agricultural drudgery with an extremely low degree of specialization, but rather about combining modern science with traditional wisdom to find low-effort solutions to essential problems. In that sense, it is quite generic and deals with issues ranging from food production to water supply to energy efficient housing and transport solutions.
To give one specific example: Land management practices that reduce the organic matter content of soils and hence soil fertility are bound to increase the effort needed to produce food in the long run and hence considered a step in the wrong direction. So, a permaculture approach would focus on using strategies that manage to build soil fertility while producing food. There are a number of ways to do that, but a key element is a deep understanding of nature’s soil food web and nutrient cycling processes. For example, permaculture pays great attention to ensuring a healthy soil microflora.
When the objective is to minimize the effort needed to sustain us, it is very important to closely observe those situations where we have to expend energy on a continual basis in order to fight natural processes. When this happens, there is a conflict between our views how things ought to look like and a system trying to demonstrate its own evolution. In some situations, we really want it that way and have to pay the corresponding price. But there are others—quite many of them—where we would be well advised to spend some thought on whether we could make our life easier by ‘going with the flow’. If thistles keep on being a nuisance on some piece of land, we might consider trying to fill this ecological niche by growing some closely related species, say some artichoke. If a meadow needs to be mowed regularly so that it does not turn into a shrub thicket, we would instead consider planting some useful shrubs in that place.
Naturally, permaculture design favours perennial plants in climatic regions where the most stable vegetation would be a forest. But it does not have to be this way. There are high-yielding low-effort (in particular: no-till, no-pesticide) ways to grow grains as well, mostly going back to Masanobu Fukuoka. They have gained some popularity in India, where they are known as ‘Rishi Kheti’—’agriculture of the sages’. Here’s a photo gallery containing some fairly recent pictures:
• Raju Titus’s Public Gallery, Picasa.
Wheat growing amid fruit trees: no tillage, no pesticides — Hoghangabad, India
An interesting perspective towards weeds which we usually do not take is: the reason this plant could establish itself here is that it’s filling an unfilled ecological niche.
JB: Actually I’ve heard someone say: "If you have weeds, it means you don’t have enough plants".
TF: Right. So, when I take that weed out, I’d be well advised to take note of nature’s lesson and fill that particular niche with an ecological analog that is more useful. Otherwise, it will quite likely come back and need another intervention.
I would consider this "letting systems demonstrate their own evolution while closely watching what they want to tell us and providing some guidance" the most important principle of permaculture.
Another important principle is the ‘user pays‘ principle. A funny idea that comes up disturbingly often up in discussions of sustainability issues (even if it is not articulated explicitly) is that there are only a limited amount of resources which we keep on using up, and once we are done with that, this would be the end of mankind. Actually, that’s not how the world works.
Take an apple tree, for example. It starts out as a tiny seed, and has to accumulate a massive amount of (nutrient) resources to grow into a mature tree. Yet, once it completes its life cycle, dies down and is consumed by fungi, it leaves the world in a more fertile state than before. Fertility tends to keep growing, because natural systems by and large work according to the principle that any agent that takes something from the natural world will return something of equal or even greater ecosystemic value.
Let me come back to an example I briefly mentioned earlier on. At a very coarse level of detail, grazing cows eat grass and return cow dung. Now, in the intestines of the cow, quite a lot of interesting biochemistry has happened that converted nonprotein nitrogen (say, urea) into much more valuable protein:
• W. D. Gallup, Ruminant nutrition, review of utilization of nonprotein nitrogen in the ruminant, Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry 4 (1956), 625-627.
A completely different example: nutrient accumulators such as comfrey act as powerful pumps that draw up mineral nutrients from the subsoil, where they would be otherwise inaccessible, and make them available for ecosystemic cycling.
Russian comfrey, Symphytum x uplandicum
It is indeed possible to not only use this concept for garden management, but as a fundamental principle to run a sustainable economy. At the small scale (businesses), its viability has been demonstrated, but unfortunately this aspect of permaculture has not received as much attention yet as it should. Here, the key questions are along the lines of: do you need a washing machine, or is your actual need better matched by the description ‘access to some laundry service’?
Concerning energy and material flows, an important principle is "be aware of the boundaries of your domain of influence, capture them as early as you can, release them as late as you can, and extract as much beneficial use out of them as possible in between". We already talked about that. In the era of cheap labour from fossil fuels, it is often a very good idea to use big earthworking machinery to slightly adjust the topography of the landscape in order to capture and make better use of rainwater. Done right, such water harvesting earthworks can last many hundreds of years, and pay back the effort needed to create them many times over in terms of enhanced biological productivity. If this were implemented on a broad scale, not just by a small percentage of farmers, this could add significantly to flood protection as well. I am fairly confident that we will be doing this a lot in the 21st century, as the climate gets more erratic and we face both more extreme rainfall events (note that saturation water vapour pressure increases by about 7% for every Kelvin of temperature increase) as well as longer droughts. It would be smart to start with this now, rather than when high quality fuels are much more expensive. It would have been even smarter to start with this 20 years ago.
A further important principle is to create stability through a high degree of network connectivity. We’ve also briefly talked about that already. In ecosystem design, this means to ensure that every important ecosystemic function is provided by more than one element (read: species), while every species provides multiple functions to the assembly. So, if something goes wrong with one element, there are other stabilizing forces in place. The mental picture which I like to use here is that of a stellar cluster: If we put a small number of stars next to one another, the system will undergo fairly complicated dynamics and eventually separate: in some three-star encounters, two stars will enter a very close orbit, while the third receives enough energy to go over escape velocity. If we lump together a large number of stars, their dynamics will thermalize and make it much more difficult for an individual star to obtain enough energy to leave the cluster—and keep it for a sufficiently long time to actually do so. Of course, individual stars do ‘boil off’, but the entire system does not fall apart as fast as just a few stars would.
There are various philosophies how to best approach weaving an ecosystemic net, ranging from ‘ecosystem mimicry‘;—i.e. taking wild nature and substituting some species with ecological analogs that are more useful to us—to ‘total synthesis of a species assembly’, i.e. combining species which in theory should grow well together due to their ecological characteristics, even though they might never have done so in nature.
JB: Cool. You’ve given me quite a lot to think about. Finally, could you also leave me with a few good books to read on permaculture?
TF: It depends on what you want to focus on. Concerning a practical hands-on introduction, this is probably the most evolved text:
• Bill Mollison, Introduction to Permaculture, Tagari Publications, Tasmania, 1997.
If you want more theory but are fine with a less refined piece of work, then this is quite useful:
• Bill Mollison, Permaculture – A Designer’s Manual, Tagari Publications, Tasmania, 1988.
Concerning temperate climates—in particular, Europe—this is a well researched piece of work that almost could be used as a college textbook:
• Patrick Whitefield, The Earth Care Manual: a Permaculture Handbook for Britain and Other Temperate Climates, Permanent Publications, East Meon, 2004.
For Europeans, this would probably be my first recommendation.
JB: Thanks! It’s been a very thought-provoking interview.
Ecologists never apply good ecology to their gardens. Architects never understand the transmission of heat in buildings. And physicists live in houses with demented energy systems. It’s curious that we never apply what we know to how we actually live. – Bill Mollison